The Government should be transparent about the evidence that supports a second lockdown

When Britain went into lockdown in March, there was no time to ask questions. The

When Britain went into lockdown in March, there was no time to ask questions. The virus was new, unknown and we watched on television as hospitals in Italy were overrun. The public headed home before the Government told them to do so. Once there, we stayed indoors for months, giving the ministers and their advisers the benefit of the doubt, believing that our patience would be rewarded; that lockdown would be resigned to the history books. A one-off phenomenon rather than a new way of life.

As England heads into a second lockdown, expect questions. Lots of them. From the Tory backbenchers, who are spitting fire that we’re back in shutdown mode before it’s even turned to winter. From the employers who invested small fortunes to make their businesses Covid-secure – putting up partitions, buying outdoor heaters – only to be told they must close their doors once again.

But the most difficult questions to answer will come from the public, which I suspect is by no means as universally supportive of these measures as the opinion polls suggest. Government’s reasoning for lockdown has been made clear: modelling assessed by Sage suggests the infection rate is rising at a pace that could soon overwhelm the NHS.

What we’re not privy to is the evidence. Despite hospital capacity being one of the biggest drivers for both lockdowns, this data is still not made publicly available. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance don’t hesitate to show us frightening graphs, modelling worse-case scenarios. But if critical care beds are nearly full in certain regions of England, why not show the public this data, as they do in France? 

When announcing lockdown 2.0, the Prime Minister claimed that even doubling NHS capacity “still would not be enough”. This was a flabbergasting statement. How much capacity, in that case, was built over the summer, and how much we might need to avoid another lockdown in the future? These questions deserve answers, with data made available for all to see.

We also know very little about the models and forecasts influencing Sage: a group that has always aired on the side of secrecy, from the identification of its members to the details of the data and studies it’s analysing. Without this information it is impossible to scrutinise the merit of this lockdown or weigh it up against the serious trade-offs we are about to make once again.  Not least in terms of non-Covid healthcare.

Michael Gove confirmed on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday what non-Covid patients have been fearing: plans to boost capacity include cancelling elective surgeries again. Gove described this as “deeply painful” – an understatement for the patients who are already being told they won’t be treated, not just for elective surgeries but for serious ailments. Cancer operations are being cancelled in Nottingham. Leeds Teaching Hospitals trust is closing down operating theatres.

For many this will be the second time their care has been delayed. We know this is leading to thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of years of life lost. Patients have a right to know if there is honestly no capacity to treat them, or if the government is being over-cautious.

Then there is the economic disaster that looms, much of which has not yet been felt from the first lockdown. The Chancellor has extended the furlough scheme for an additional month. This will offer temporary support to the millions affected by this shutdown. But it cannot offset the inevitable unemployment spike that’s coming, set to disproportionately harm the vulnerable, young and low-paid. Hopes for a V-shaped recovery have been replaced with real fears that we could be looking at another contraction – a dreaded W-shaped trajectory – resulting in a poorer future for us all. 

Yet there were no slides in Saturday’s press conference modelling these non-Covid health repercussions or the economic hit that will come from locking England down for a second time. No indication that these costs have been taken into account. What the public is being asked to do again is arguably worse this time round, as the burdens of lockdown become even more severe. People deserve more than the Government’s say-so, but an honest, transparent account of the data that explains why their hospital appointment is cancelled and finding a new job just became infinitely harder.

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